Hypocrisy, denial, trust, truth, and candor (sincerity) are words that come to mind while reading the latest news about the zillion leaked US State Department cables. Relationships among sovereign states, like those between friends and relations, require trust most of all. Candor helps to establish trust, but may be distorted on occasions where the truth would inflict unnecessary pain. Hypocrisy ultimately leads to loss of trust when actions belie the words spoken and claims made about them.
In the absence of the last three in the list, relationships lose or never find a consensual basis for action, and can only be maintained through the exercise of power. In an atomistic world, where every entity operates in the absence of constraints placed by the mere presence of the other (whether a person, a polity, or a oil-well field), power always eventually trumps cooperation and restraint. Such was the history of the human species from time immemorial to recent times. The ends of World War II and the Cold War led to the establishment of institutions, like the UN or arms control treaties, designed to mitigate power and provide a way to consensus, or, if not full consensus, to some lesser form of cooperation. In each of these cases, those in power came to realize that its unilateral exercise was a losing game.
For quite some time, much of the front page news points, not to these critical virtues, but to the first two in the list: hypocrisy and denial. The leaked cables are full of hypocrisy, evidence of our spokesmen saying one thing in public and another in private. The immediate excuse, since Machiavelli, is that statecraft has always been full of such talk, a requirement given the supreme egos and acquisitiveness of those in power around the world. Another argument is that hypocrisy or downright lying is needed to protect the Nation’s secrets and strategies in order to win the Great Game of economic hegemony. These habits and norms are so entrenched in the institutions of governments that I cannot see it disappearing even after the embarrassment created by the leaked cables.
Recent political history in the US illustrates all the listed characteristics. There is lots of the first two and little or none of the last three. The most basic tenet of our country is that those elected govern with the consent of the people. So says our Declaration of Independence: “. . . Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed . . .” The mere act of casting a ballot does not amount to a giving of consent when those elected fail to honor their position by dealing in denial and hypocrisy. Consent, as I note above, comes only on the back of trust, truth and candor. [For the inquisitive among the readers, these three are the fundaments of Jurgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action.] Without them, the utterances of individuals or collectives are always manipulative and power-laden.
So far, what I have written pertains to relations among people, but it also pertains to our relationship to the Earth. If I use the metaphor of Mother Earth, then all of the above is relevant. We require a peaceful and cooperative stance, built on truth, trustM and candor, in order to flourish. If we deny the consequences of our actions that affect her, we are, as above, using power rather than cooperation, to shape our actions. And in this case, the use of power to wrest from her everything we claim to need, is a losing game. Denial comes in the belief that we can beat her in the game by our cleverness in coming up with new tools and treading more lightly.
We are also being hypocritical about these so-called strategies. Most of what business is doing is some form of green washing. Individual green actions deny their collective insult to Mother Nature, and blinds us to the need for serious, even radical, change. When denial and hypocrisy are turned into political virtues, sustainability moves further from our grasp. The workings of the Internet has reminded us of something we always said–truth will out. Hopefully, the damage to our foreign policy can be remedied. Maybe it will become more effective because this event might force us to act less hypocritically and more truthfully. The same cannot be said of sustainability. Once we have upset Mother Nature beyond her ultimate line in the sand, she is not likely to forgive us and offer another chance.